Unions warned over failure to stem fall in membership
Britain’s trade unions have been warned that they face increasing irrelevance without radical reforms that would attract new members from fast growing sectors with large numbers of casual employees, such as the hospitality industry.
The message came in a report from the Fabian Society, and the Community union, with analysis showing that Britain’s fastest growing industries had the lowest union membership levels.
The report serves as a renewed warning for the union movement operating in the private sector after years of decline. It also comes as the bargaining power of workers to demand higher wages and better conditions comes under threat from technological innovation as well as from the gig economy. In the private sector workforce, union membership plummeted to 13% in 2016 – amounting to just 2.6 million workers – from almost 50% in 1979. By contrast, the public sector experienced a drop from 69% to 53% over the same period, and 3.6 million members recorded last year.
“Trade unions have a mountain to climb to stem four decades of membership decline, but it is not insurmountable,” said Cameron Tait, a Fabian Society senior research fellow.
Union membership, as a proportion of the total workforce in the five private sector industries with the highest projected employment growth, is no higher than 12.1%, according to the report. That is significantly below the national average for the economy as a whole, where just under a quarter of all workers – including those in the public sector – are members of a union.
The challenge is greatest in the hospitality sector, which encompasses bars, restaurants and hotels, and is one of the three fastest growing industries, where membership density is just 2.5%.
The report, commissioned by the Changing Work Centre, a joint initiative of the Fabians, and Community, chaired by Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP and former work and pensions secretary, includes an 11-point plan for boosting union membership.
It suggests that more than a million additional private-sector workers could join the movement if reforms were implemented to make it easier and more attractive for them to join.
Options include following the model used by the AA and other motor insurers offering instant breakdown cover to non-members, whereby workers could be sold services in exchange for a fee and a membership pledge when issues in the workplace arise, as opposed to having to be a member before problems happen. The union movement could also introduce a kitemark for companies with good employment practices.
Although the numbers of workers recorded on a zero-hours contract are falling, some economists fear the high usage of contracts which do not guarantee minimum numbers of hours, and the falling levels of union representation, are combining to suppress growth in wages.